I read a review about this book, a slim collection of short stories, ordered it from my bookseller then let it sit on my shelves for a couple years. Coming across it the other day I’d forgotten whatever the review said that originally invited me to buy it and because So Many Books To Read, I thought I’d give it purpose by sending to a friend who collects African literature.
I had a little note all written and ready to tuck inside, the brown paper ready to wrap it with and then… well, maybe I’ll just have a quick flip through first.
And just like that, in the blink of an eye, or after the first story, I loved it.
Because it’s not what I expected.
I expected stories of apartheid and while, yes, these are stories of apartheid; how could they not be? Not the least because Alex la Guma was a freedom fighter against apartheid to the point he had to flee his own country in 1966. He went to the UK where this book was published two years later. So, yes, there are stories of oppression but what surprised me in the most eye-opening and beautiful way are the stories of what it is to be non-White in South Africa. Which of course includes apartheid but is so much bigger than anything, no matter how horrendous, that can be imposed upon a population. It means the resilience of people and the attitude of care and compassion toward each other; it means love and families made of blood and of choice. And it shows that apartheid was not only race based, but class based.
‘The Lemon Orchard’, tells of a Black man who is led by a group of White racists through an orchard (the details of which are exquisite; you are there in the orchard as they walk, aware of the fragrance, the fruit… the juxta-positioning of this with the action and the dialogue is powerful)… walking to the outer reaches of an orchard, where they intend to punish (kill?) the Black man for being ‘cheeky’ in his response to a White man. The ending isn’t what you might expect but it’s exactly this element of ‘the unexpected’ that keeps me reading.
Another story, ‘A Matter of Taste’, finds a Chinese man and a Black man, both hobos, sharing a cup of coffee from a precious few grounds they scavenged. They’ve made a fire next to a railway line when a White man appears from the woods looking thin, hungry, and bedraggled, much like themselves. The coffee is stretched to three as they make up stories about the best meals they can imagine eating and then they imagine eating them.
‘Blankets’ is about a Black man who’s been shot and takes refuge in a lean-to that smells of urine and rot, where he’s covered in blankets that are no more than rags and smell just as bad. Then a paramedic comes, a White face looks down at him and they get him into an ambulance where he’s covered in clean blankets, real blankets, and it’s at this moment he realizes the difference between one social class and another.
Little gems, every one.
All of which to say… I’ll have to buy another copy of the book to send my friend. I’m keeping this one.